20 Pages Posted: 4 Sep 2016 Last revised: 29 Jun 2017
Date Written: September 2, 2016
This symposium paper challenges the Supreme Court’s most recent campaign finance decision, McCutcheon v. FEC. True to recent form, the Court in that case invalidated another restriction on money in politics, the federal limit on aggregate contributions. The Court based its decision on two arguments: if one complies with base contribution limits, giving no more than $5,200 to any candidate, there is no “cognizable risk of corruption”; and aggregate limits do not prevent circumvention of base limits. We show that both arguments fall short. Contributions within base limits can cause corruption, as a simple theory and ample evidence demonstrate. And aggregate limits mitigate a particular and ubiquitous form of circumvention: spillover. Spillover happens when a lawful contribution to one candidate benefits that candidate’s allies, creating a multiplier effect. Separate from critiquing the Court, these points lead to a theory about contribution limits: base limits affect the magnitude of corrupt acts while aggregate limits affect their frequency. This theory provides a new justification for aggregate limits, and it casts fresh light on the debate over the First Amendment and corruption.
Keywords: campaign finance, campaign contributions, aggregate limits, McCutcheon, corruption, election law
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